I had a blade to my throat, and a hand yanking my hair, with force enough to pull my head back and bend the rest of me along.
I had been caught off guard, startled half to death. My tired heart raced inside my chest.
I was bathed in sweat, and my hands were still bleeding from the stones I had climbed, the wounds stinging more from their salt. Directly in front of me were the closed panes of the window I had at last emerged from. At my feet were the daggers I'd used to help me pull myself up along the climb, along with my satchel, which I had dropped after closing the panes. I regretted blocking out the light (as well as my only possibility of escape). I had intended only to rest in the shade, but I was now submerged in darkness, with a stranger at my back who no doubt considered me a threat.
“Hands over your head. Right now.” His feral voice said, barely above a whisper.
As calmly as I could, I obeyed. My pulse was in shambles as I lifted my hands, my voice trembled when I spoke.
“Sir, I am so terribly sorr-”
“SILENCE!” He all but screamed this time, pulling harder at my hair. “You will speak when you’re asked to. Understood?”
Panting, I nodded, and thanked the goods when he let go of my head. But I would not see peace yet. With his free hand he reached out and brought first one arm, then the other back down, placing them behind my back and getting hold of my wrists. Only once he needed to make use of his other hand did he remove the knife from my neck, stashing it in a pocket or another. From a similar place he must have fetched the thin rope he used to tie my arms together.
I almost begged him for mercy. I was too terrified of what he would do if I spoke.
Pushing me forward, he led me up a set of stairs to an adjacent room. It was barren, save for a chair, placed in such a way that the person sitting would face the wall. The only window was blocked by dark curtains, and it kept out the light. After sitting me out on the chair, sliding me between it and the wall, he took his hands off me and went to shut the doors closed. I expected to be swallowed by darkness, but I discovered there was a skylight, a glazed one at that, right above my head, casting a circle of faint white light around me. I could not help but internally laugh at the dramatics of it all, even if the humor was about to be slashed out of me.
I heard the rustling of brisk movement from behind me, and seconds later my entire torso was being circled by more rope, constraining me fully to the chair. When the job was done, he turned me around, making me face the openness of the room.
I shivered at the realization of just how meticulously his plan was designed. It made the questions inside me multiply. Couldn’t that mean, almost doubtlessly, that he had heard me, perhaps even seen me, climbing up? Why had he not voiced at me to back off and leave? Was he bloodthirsty, a maniac? My fear spiked, reaching unthinkable heights.
Without warning, he stepped out from behind me and walked into the light.
I was, at once, overwhelmed by the sight of him.
He was wearing peculiar robes, which had an improvised air to them. They were something akin to a sleeveless shirt and short pants, tailored from a white linen of sorts. Their edges were frayed, and the material looked rough and thick, giving the impression it would keep the cold away despite its length.
His eyes were a thing of wonder, too. Deep green, which was uncommon enough, and they were accompanied by long and tupid eyelashes. He had an aquiline nose and sharp, tightly held jaws, but his cheeks had a round and rosey look to them. He was, as I had suspected, shorter than me, but his body had a soldierlike build, all muscles and glazed skin. He couldn’t have been older than me, judging by the still round angles on his face, that mirrored some of my own.
But, without question, the most astonishing thing about him was his hair.
It was everywhere.
It cascaded around him all the way down to his knees, and it was white blond, bathing him in the splandor it produced under the skylight.
I was mesmerized.
I was frigthened.
I swallowed, hard, as he came closer, knife still drawn.
"Who are you? And how did you find me?"
I could not move. I could not speak. I could do nothing but stare and gawk and marvel at him.
He put his knife to my throat once more.
"I said who are you, and How. Did. You find me?!" He rang out.
"Patroclus. My name is Patrocous Chironides." I stuttered. "I was in a bit of a… desperate situation, looking out for a place to rest and sleep, when I stumbled into your cave, and then, into your tower. The whole landscape looked desolate to me, and so I took the liberty of climbing up. If you've seen the state of my hands, you’ll notice that was no easy, nor quickly managed or therefore premeditated task. All I used for it were two bulgar knives I peel fruits with, and they wouldn’t cut the air If I tried. I am very, very sorry to have intruded into your home and disturbed your peace, but I promise I’m innocent of attempting any crimes against you, and I will be right on my way just as soon as you let me go."
"Is that so?" He asked, clutching his weapon with so much force I began to feel blood spill down my neck.
"Yes. Yes. It is. I swear."
He considered my answer for a moment. I could see the wheels turning in his head.
"Is anyone else aware of my location, Patroclus Chironides?"
"No. Well, not that I'm aware of."
Up until this point in my life, I’d been an honest man. Somehow, I was certain he could sense that much about me. Along the course of his interrogation, something in the way he observed me had transmuted, softened, or at the very least become less vindictive. Undeniably, my spiel had no holes in it, and he would have needed to be blind .with rage not to see that.
"And if I do let you go, I don't suppose you'll go around telling others what you've seen in here?"
To that, I did not know what to respond. I looked at him helplessly, but he did not give me further clues.
"Seen what, exactly?"
That question, out of everything that had transpired so far, seemed to have thrown him completely out of his rhythm. He scampered off the way we came from, slamming the door open and stomping, not without tossing his knife somewhere, making a racket of iron against rock.
I sat in sacred silence while he was absent, willing my heartbeat to ease.
He must have had deep predicaments to sort out, for he delayed his return long enough for me to wonder whether his plan was to leave me to die there, out of hunger and thirst and fear.
When he showed himself again, he appeared more collected, perhaps at peace with my justifications. He approached me calmly, with a half smile on his lips and I felt ready to burst with gratitude.
I was not expecting, however, to hear the exact words that came out of his mouth.
“Very well, Patroclus Chironides. I have made the decision to trust you. I am prepared to offer you a deal.”
I blinked at him, hopes dissipating.
“Yes, a deal. You see, my mother, who is… traveling, right now, on a very important business, is a very loving, yet overprotective mother. This tower, and the beach below us, are all I’ve ever known in life. I’ve never been to the mainland, seen the kingdom, walked its streets, or experienced its marvels. And recently, you see, my mother has arranged a marriage for me. I am to marry… a young woman from Scryros, and I am expected to move into her island, which is as barren as this very room, if not more. You see, Patroclus, I have started to become restless with the desire to learn more about the world, before I’m prepared to be a husband and father, and I think I have an idea that will make you very useful to me indeed, in compensation for your… trespassing.”
I half-hoped he would be joking, making up stories to preface the real deal. His monologue had been beyond entertaining, and he was charming, sympathetic, even. But he was also quite the jester, he moved around the space as he spoke, filling the empty room with his voice and his antics. He was visibly the type of young man that could have moved crowds to their feet, a compelling storyteller, an entertainer, and more. He had a beauty to him that was commanding, and an air of innocence that was unmistakable, nailing his tales down. Still, I was his prey, and I could not forget the way he had pounced on me like a beast, stealthy, precise, and brutal. I did not know what to make of him. I did not know what to do with myself.
“That’s very clear and well, my Lord.” I said, “What I fail to make out, is in what way I could be of assistance to you.”
Straight to the point, and with eyes tearing into mine as sharp as his knife, he said:
"You will take me to town and give me a grand tour of the world, of everything I've been kept away from and will continue to miss out on. You'll show me everything, the food, the music, you'll make sure I experience every last bit of it. After the course of a week you'll return me here, and then, only then, will I return your satchel, the one that’s full of gold downstairs, to you. Do you understand?"
I understood. I understood that he was trying to be commanding, to maintain the ferociousness and control he had displayed, but in my eyes, somewhat of a mask had fallen off his face. His eyes were a desperate thing as he spoke, blown wide and watery, and I knew, had he not had the current circumstances on his side, he would have been begging me.
Still, there was the gold to be accounted for, and the fact that there was, as recent examples had suggested, no possible scenario in which I could outsmart this wild creature of a man.
We were silent for a heartbeat, staring at each other. I sat dead still, contemplating his plans, and by the absurd expression of smugness that his face evolved into, he seemed to believe he had the upper hand. That is, until I spoke.
"Well, there's one gross misunderstanding you're making there, my Lord..."
His brow arched nervously.
"And what would that be?"
"That I can't possibly give you a grand tour of the world , bathe you in luxuries and spoil you like a child, without a single single cent in my pocket."
He continued to stare at me, as if he didn't understand my meaning, and so I carried on.
"Well, I presume it was my riches you were planning to make use of in order to fund your little… escapade. Are there perhaps savings of your own you intend to spend instead? Believe me, food and wine are not cheap, and if you're counting on entertainment or a roof over your head, the numbers go way up. I can do absolutely nothing for you if you insist on depriving me of my bloody satchel."
The next second, he was gone, returning at the blink of an eye with my satchel in hand. For someone so assertive and terrorizing, he was surely impressionable. He sat on the ground in front of me, icy hair spreading like snowfall around him, and he began to fish contents out of my satchel, making a pile at his feet, and turning to watch me after every item made his grasp. Gold and silver coins did not amuse them, he dug them out of the way like a hound paws at dirt, enthusiastically and without paying it any mind. Next came the jewels, five shiny strings of pearls, seven golden bracelets, a pocket sized clock in engraved bronze. There was a pendant, attached to a fine golden chain, that seemed to catch his eye. It was in the shape of an arrow, sharp yet delicate, and he ran it over with his fingertips before setting it aside.
When the clutter engulfing it was gone, my mother’s lyre was exposed in full view.
My face must have given something away, some type of anxiety he had not seen before, for, after taking it out, he stopped in his tracks and addressed me, all grins, exceedingly pleased with himself.
"Do you mind if I take this along to play, or would you prefer I don't touch it?"
I stared at the treasure in his hands. I didn't think I felt deep attachment towards the object, and yet, I was bitter about the way he'd manage to take it from me, as if the fates were determined to part me from it. But it had been my mother's, once, and it was all I had in the world. This much, he had figured out on his own, and was brilliantly using against me.
"I have no use for something like that. I was simply planning to sell it away."
"Sell it away, then." He replied, to my amusement. What kind of game was he playing? "As long as you're willing to share some of your profits with me. I wanna have it all, even if just for a week.”
We reached one further agreement, one that kept us both fairly content: We’d only bring the lyre, and a generous amount of golden and silver coins along the journey. The rest of the treasure would stay, my return. From the pile at his feet, he retrieved the pendant that had caught his eye, and hung it around his neck. I did not ask whether he planned to return that. I cannot say I cared. He then went to fetch a vase, and inside it placed every item that didn’t make our cut.
Afterwards, he untied me, and allowed me to stand. With the terror half gone, I concerned myself with my wounds.
The scratch on my neck had dried, but it still stinged to the touch. The redness on my wrists would pass in time. He had not been cruel, only methodical, and at no point had I seen benefit in struggling. In my state, he could have bound me to the very air, and I would have been none the wiser. Perhaps I should have been ashamed of this admision, but I was not. Acting recklessly and foolishly may have worked in my favor to that point in time, but I had known better than to continue testing my luck.
The worst of the damage was on my palms. They were gashed, burned and covered in dried blood, and just by the look of them I suspected I would not be able to demand too much of them for the next couple of days.
I asked him for fresh water, clean cloth, herbs and honey to dress the wounds. As he departed the room to fetch me those, he stalled, frozen at the door frame with a question in his eyes.
“What is it?’ I asked.
He did not answer, only swayed once more, and then left me, and this time I could hear his heels plunge on the staircase.
I laid on the floor while I waited, overridden by exhaustion. He returned quicker than I expected, arms full, carrying a vase full of water, a piece of clothing that looked much like the ones he was wearing, except it was longer and torn at one seam, and, to my surprise, a set of clean clothes for me. It consisted of a noble, thick shirt, a pair of dark pants, a leather belt, and boots that proved to be too small for me. The items, I knew, had to be expensive, and I wondered why, if he had access to them, choose to spend his days in rags. On the other arm, he carried a basket, and tucked inside it were branches of one too many different ingredients (rosemary, oregano, lavender, thyme, common sage, peppermint, chamomile, basil, three garlic cloves, a whole lemon, an onion, six blueberries, a few rose petals) along with a jar of honey, a functional knife (which seriously surprised me) and, what’s this! A few sticks of cinnamon, the trophy of champions in the flesh.
I stared, incredulous, up at him.
“I did not know what you would need, so I brought everything that rang a bell.” He admitted, and I had expected him to be regretful, or even greedy, but he was not. He left again, to let me change and work in peace, and closed the door behind him without saying another word.
I undressed, washed the days of sweat and grime off my skin, and tended to my wounds. He returned soon after I had finished changing into my new clothes, knocking on the door.
He led me, down the stairs, to another room. It was smaller, a library of sorts, and in one corner was a couch, accompanied by a pillow and what appeared to be a finely woven blanket. On a table right beside, sat a plate of bread, a hard boiled egg, an apple, and three slices of cheese.
“You will need to eat and rest.” He stated. “We will leave in the morning. I’ll make sure everything is set.”
I wondered for a moment if this boy would have the slightest idea of what would be necessary to bring along, but I decided not to meddle. The room we were in had no doors, so I simply watched him dissolve into the corridors of the tower, and I was alone once more.
I wish I could say I slept with an eye open, that the presence of this feral stranger tormented my peace, that I was aware of every little sound and movement going on around me in the lion's den. But that would be a grotesque lie, for after eating, I had only to lie for a minute before sleep took me.
He came to me at dawn and woke me up, with a few shakes. He looked like a different individual than the one I had met, and that deepened my initial state of confusion. For one, he had changed out of the rag-like, androgynous garments he'd been wearing, and was now in a very decent shirt and pants that looked perhaps a little tight. They clung to his muscles and brought out the fierceness of him, the indisputable manliness I had seen. His long, white hair was tightly pulled back, and it dissolved at the back of his head into a tall tail. He wore a dark belt at his hips, and the sheath of a knife hung from it.
Once I rose, we barely spoke. I followed him blindly into the kitchen, where he served me breakfast, and then onto the main room at the bottom of the stairs. At the foot of the window I had emerged from were a packed bag, presumably with spare clothes, the same basket from the day before, overflowing with fruit and bread, two canteens and my satchel.
To my great relief, that godforsaken window was not the only way in and out his tower. Right in the middle of that very room a set of tiles lifted, revealing a staircase underneath. We walked into its pit with our things on our backs, and after he shut the tile back into place we were left in darkness. I followed scrupulously after him, terrified of slipping a step and landing on my face, and sooner rather than later we had reached the bottom and encountered a wooden doorway. He pushed it open, and we exited the tower for good. We were now on its backyard, there were crops, and wildflowers, and fruit trees, and the fresh morning air hit my temples and made me chill.
To tell the truth of it, I’d started to tremble, for reasons very different than just the wind, and before I could make my mind up about it, I spoke to him.
“I must tell you something, we leave” I said. Something I think you may want to know.”
He stared at me somberly. He was the one carrying my sachet, I was carrying provisions, and when I stared at the load on his shoulders I knew I would not be able to keep my secrets to myself. I went on.
“All that gold you’re carrying now, it’s not mine. I stole it all, and I’m on the run because of it. I cannot return to the mainland, they’ll be most likely searching for me. Speaking plainly, I could still take you to a neighboring island and give you the tour you desire, but that would mean for you to become the accomplice to a man on the run. I believe you at the very least deserve to be aware of that. You do not have to agree with what I’ve done, but believe me, I was only doing what I could to survive.”
For what seemed like an age, he did not speak, only stared intensely at me, and although his eyes were blown wide, the rest of his face was frozen still, and I could not deduct how he felt, what he was thinking, what his opinion of me had become. Judging by how fiercely he had protected his home, I doubted he’d be delighted to join a criminal on the run, no matter what he’d earn in return.
But then, he spoke, and I was, once more, not expecting what came out of him.
“Do you think I know nothing of the world at all, Patroclus? No one who owns this much gold looks or acts like you.”
I was stunned, and he was smiling, and then he turned and walked away.
I followed, dumbfounded.
“I do appreciate your honesty, though, valiant Patroclus.” He added, giggling to himself. What was funny to him, I could not tell. I did not try. “Speaks highly of you. I was not expecting you to voice it so humbly.”
I considered what he was implying.
“I… was under the impression you’d never seen anyone aside from your mother?’ I asked.
“That’s not quite what I said. That would be outrageous.” He repplied, scoffing. “What I’ve said is that she’s overprotective, and tries to keep the visits short and far apart, and only allows them when she believes they’re necessary.”
“So you do not mind, then?” I asked.
“Which part? That you’re a thief, that we cannot tour the mainland, that I’ll become a fugitive by proxy, or that my mother has alienated me from civilization since I was a babe?”
“Either.” I said, frankly.”
“No.” He stated. “I do not mind.” And he went on.
Upon leaving the backyards behind, we encountered my horse. He’d helped himself to water from a pond and grass to eat, and he was still tied to a large rock, just the way I’d left him.
“I don’t think we should bring him along.” He said. “He’ll draw in too much attention, make potential escape plans more dificult. Better stay low, move around on foot. He’ll be fine here, his rope is long. Plenty to eat and drink.”
I agreed. We moved forward, and reached the cave that lead to the beach.
We were halfway through, when another question appeared on my mind.
“Wait!” I called out.
He turned to look at me, eyebrows raised.
“It is just…” I hesitated. “You have not told me your name.”
"My name is Achilles." He winked at me. "Pleasure."
Meaning , Pain.
Who would curse their child with such a name as that? I wondered. The type of mother who would alienate their child from the rest of civilization, perhaps, my mind provided.
But then my own name came to mind, and I could not help but laugh inside.
There was one thing we had in common, atl least. A ridiculous, ill-fitting name.
This boy, for as long as I’d known him, fit the exact epitome of joy. He was lighthearted, and playful, and his easy smiles shone like the sun.
And I had no father who would count me as a reason for pride, no father at all, to impress or disappoint.
That last part, given my recent choices, came more than ever as a cause for relief instead of sorrow.
I followed after Achilles, taking in the sight of the beach that had led me his way. The waters and sand were sparkling under the afternoon sun, and in the sky above, not a cloud could be seen. As I watched Achilles wander the beach, some of the tension I'd been harboring left me, and I stepped steadily into the sand.
I did not doubt he was hiding things from me, I could all but see the secrets looming over his head. But I did not think he was lying to me. The way he conducted himself at times was humorous, almost laughable. He had the body of a grown man, but the antics of a child. Where my footsteps were controlled and grounded, he skipped and hopped when he walked, dallying about the place with the lightness of a cat. I was anxious, as I’d been for many a day now, but he was peachy, taking in the ocean and the breeze and kicking sand around.
We moved north for about an hour, searching for a breech in the mountainside, and open expanse of forest, and once we entered the woodlands, him before me, I could not help but feel my freshly found tranquility falter.
What had I, truly, gotten myself into? Why was I so easily agreeing to it?
But most importantly:
Which one of us was being more impulsive, me, or him?